How One Young Explorer Is Helping Peers Become Sustainability Solution Seekers

This post was written by 2020 Young Explorer Shriya Rai.


Sometimes the smallest moment can put us on a path of exploration. For me, this was researching and writing a really interesting paper called “Environmental History of India” while I was studying political science. The Indian environmental movement is reflective of Indian society at large. Social justice and sustainability are inextricably linked and reflected through movements like Bishnoi and the Chipco Movement (when villagers put their arms around trees to keep loggers from cutting them down), and the angle of solidarity and collaboration really inspired me.

I didn’t know that it would be this moment that would lead me to found my own organization committed to sustainability in India, Sashakt Bharat (Empowered India). Sashakt Bharat is an environmental leadership initiative with the intention that participants will influence collective environmental action in the communities they come from and inspire change. At Sashakt Bharat, we believe in amplifying youth voices through documenting stories, creating awareness, and sharing knowledge to contribute towards the creation of a pan-India sustainability network.

Sustainability is a part of the communities we are from; young people often don’t have the ability to document it but they practice it in their daily lives. I wanted to start an organization to share those ideas and help young people come up with solutions to create prosperity in their communities.

Why young people? Most organizations in India today work with the amorphous categorization of “youth,” dismissing the diversity of context, identity geography, and vernacular that we represent. Young people cannot be understood as being distinct from the community they represent. Young people understand their roots, challenges, and opportunities very well. So the systems of inclusion that we create through our work should be based on leveraging young people’s networks/knowledge and identities, and that can in itself create a ripple effect that can induct others within this ecosystem facilitated by collaboration and problem-solving. 

Through Sashakt Bharat we are attempting to tap into the richness of leadership, ideas, and cultural diversity that this platform can provide and potentially inspire others to take young people seriously. As part of the developing world, I have always realized that what we “lack” is not merely resources but also ideas. There is a need for thought leaders who are multifaceted and skilled to lead conversations of the country and world and not merely be a part of it. I believe in the potential that this country has in terms of the richness of ideas and there is a need for organizations and experts to leverage that. 

I thought Sashakt Bharat might be quickly dismissed, but people actually started responding to the organization. We are now in the process of launching our ambassador program. We’ll be taking 50 young people as the first cohort and organizing sustainability workshops in different parts of the country, where we will collaborate with young individuals working on sustainability concerns and partner with local stakeholders to draft region-specific and inclusive solutions through youth led projects. They also will help connect young people with educational institutions so they can develop the skills they need to become environmental solution finders.

This experience has really taught me that young people can be change-makers in their own communities. We don’t need representation from political leaders all the time; young people understand the community. Through my work, I am attempting to create an organization that can amplify voices and initiatives that are youth-led/regional and inclusive. I truly feel this can open up the chance for young people to develop their identities as change agents for their communities. 

My tips for young people looking to step up and make a difference in their own communities: 

  • Don’t be afraid of calling out injustice. Be very honest about where you fit and your identities. Be very true in terms of the community you are creating and your concerns and don’t back down. 
  • Look for collaboration. I felt no one would support my idea, but there were so many people doing so much wonderful work. Who can you ask for help? Who comes with different expertise to help make the work credible?
  • Share disappointments. There will be multiple — go beyond all of them and support each other and stand in solidarity, especially in these times. 
  • Be respectful of each other’s identities. The people you work with may be coming from distant backgrounds. Support each other — we need a lot of leaders and young people to go beyond political distances and actually make their actions more collaborative. 
  • Completely understand what it is you’re proposing to do. Be sure to do enough research; you don’t have to have a plan right away, but you do need a larger vision. 
  • Eventually, your finances matter. Where will the money come from? We were doing workshops when we had no funding. That impacted the team — they were working in different parts of the country and how do you do that without funding? Being part of the National Geographic Young Explorers program encouraged my team to institutionalize our work. Collaborations, crowdfunding — anything is an option. Map out where you can get funding from as you get started to make sure your program is financially sustainable.
  • Be mindful that it will be a process — success may not come right away. People from policymakers to your own parents may dismiss you. It takes a lot of resilience. 
  • Constantly adapt to change. COVID-19 has taught all of us that those who are adaptable are the ones who succeed. Who would have thought the world would shut down for six months? How do we proceed so we aren’t impacted? I feel that resilience and adaptability are key.

If young people come together, it can be an organic process and we can grow alongside each other. Anyone who wants to be part of Saskhakt Bharat can take it to their own communities and make it their own and give it meaning. This platform is only the starting point for them. If I can support these ideas, well, that’s what it’s really about. 

How have you worked to innovate around sustainability in your community? Join the #GenGeo conversation to discuss ideas with your fellow young people and drive toward solutions together. You also can sign up to join our #GenGeo community here. Can’t wait to see you there!

Feature image courtesy Shriya Rai